It’s Not Magic, It’s Science! Yosemite Waterfall Turns To a Firefall

For a few weeks in February if the conditions are just right, for about 10 minutes around sunset, one waterfall in Yosemite National Park looks more like its opposite — a firefall.

Visitors who flocked to the California park last week, many with cameras in tow, have not been disappointed by the glowing transformation ofHorsetail Fall, which flows from El Capitan.

“In the over 20 years I have been photographing the firefall and leading workshops there in Yosemite, I have never seen a more spectacular one,” said Michael Mariant, a photographer from Morro Bay, Calif., who leads teaching trips to Yosemite.

The phenomenon occurs if there has been enough snow and rain in the Sierra Mountains to fuel the waterfall, if the skies are clear and if the setting sun strikes the water at an angle that creates the illusion of lava.


Andrew McDonald, a student of High Sierra Workshops, took this photo at the falls, amid a sea of photographers.CreditAndrew McDonald/High Sierra Workshops

Mike Gauthier, the park’s chief of staff, said that he was not sure if it was definitely the best firefall ever. But it certainly trumps the firefall the last few years, when drought turned Horsetail Fall mostly dry.

This cascade of glowing water is a natural alternative to another, discontinued Yosemite firefall tradition.

In the 1870s, the owners of a hotel in the park started dumping embersfrom a cooling fire off a cliff. From Curry Village, a camping and lodging area below, this happened to look like a flowing fire, and spectators would gather to marvel at the sight. Mr. Gauthier said that it ended in 1968 because of changes in the way officials thought about national parks — as sites for enjoying the natural world, not places for artificial spectacle.

The current Horsetail Fall phenomenon, traditionally viewed from points east of El Capitan, is expected to last at least for a few more days, according to Mr. Gauthier, when the sun still sets at the golden angle.


Written by PH

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